1, Minnesota averages 31.5 points per game (ranks fourth in the Big Ten) and has scored at least 29 points in its eight victories. What do you attribute the success to?
Ryan Burns: Very opportunistic running backs. Sophomore Rodney Smith is absolutely playing as a top three running back in the Big Ten this season, as he's rushed for over 1,000 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns, and I really don't want to give Minnesota's offensive line a ton of credit. Smith's had to create constantly for himself at the line of scrimmage, as the Gophers offensive line has struggled to get push. Opponents are consistently stacking the box, knowing Minnesota struggles in the passing game. Smith has been fantastic all season long. His partner in crime is fellow sophomore Shannon Brooks, who is averaging 4.8 yards per carry himself, but Smith has really taken over that lead back role in the last month or so.
2, How have Smith and Brooks opened up some things offensively for Minnesota?
Burns: Things have opened up in the passing game because of both backs, but Minnesota really hasn't been able to exploit that. The last few weeks we've really seen opposing defenses stack the box against quarterback Mitch Leidner and these receivers, but they haven't been able to take advantage of the man coverage on the outside with these one-on-one match-ups. Minnesota's deep ball success rate isn’t very high.
My guess is that this Wisconsin defense does what others have, and that's stack the box and force Minnesota to beat them in the passing game. Gophers run a lot of short crossing routes to try and keep the chains moving, but they're going to need to find that deep passing game if they're going to keep Wisconsin honest.
3, Wisconsin fans know all about its struggling passing attack, but why have the Gophers struggled through the air with a veteran quarterback?
Burns: It rests on both the quarterback and the receivers, because Minnesota's offensive line has actually done well in pass protection. The big boys up front for the Gophers have only allowed eight sacks in eight B1G games, and Football Outsiders has Minnesota rated as the 13th best in pass protection according to their Adjusted Sack Rate.
Leidner's accuracy has been hit or miss for most of the Big Ten season, and his interceptions have come at critical points. He has a touchdown to interception ratio during Big Ten play was 2:7, and Minnesota got its first receiving touchdown since October 1st last week.
That being said, his receivers really haven't given him a ton of help. They’ve struggled getting consistent separation from defenders, and Leidner's had to try and throw them open more times than he should. Drew Wolitarsky has been his security blanket, but teams are now starting to double team him, and that's been a problem for this Gopher passing offense.
If Minnesota's going to get the Axe back, this passing offense is going to need have to the game of the season.
4, How has former Wisconsin offensive line coach Bart Miller done with Minnesota’s front this season?
Burns: He's doing a pretty good job. Minnesota's going through a slew of injuries on the offensive line, as most Big Ten teams are at this point in the season, and the Gophers will be without their starting left guard Jared Weyler again (torn tricep). What Miller has done more than anything is brought in a physical mindset that he's trying to instill in each one of these linemen, as the physicality up front is something that's been lacking in recent years.
5, Minnesota is 26th in the county in total defense, a number that may be surprising to some. Where have the Gophers thrived this year?
Burns: The Gophers defense is legit, and they're coming off their best overall performance of the season last week against Northwestern. Minnesota's received stout play from its defensive tackles all season, as they've been able to control the interior more snaps than not to allow the linebackers to shoot through and make plays. Defensive tackle Steven Richardson specifically has been a one-man wrecking crew, leading the team in sacks and tackles for loss, not to mention he's in the backfield even more than that.
Minnesota's defense may remind you a bit of what Wisconsin runs, as the Gophers staff had Dave Aranda in during the spring to learn more about the 3-4 / 2-4-5, and their getting better in this scheme each week. The strength of the defense is their depth at linebacker with their good pass rushers, including walk-on Blake Cashman, who has six tackles for loss and five sacks over his last three games.
Minnesota's also received consistent secondary play of late. Senior safety Damarius Travis has been the biggest key for this defense since he's the one making all the calls and making the big plays.
6, The Gophers are 13th in the country in tackles for loss per game and 16th in sacks per game. Is that success derived from the defensive line, the linebackers or both?
Burns: It certainly starts up front with those defensive tackles. I mentioned it earlier, but Minnesota's front seven has done a good job of putting opposing offensive in third-and-long situations, which allows the Gophers to put out their pass rushers and they've done a good job of getting home. The secondary has been able to cover for three or four seconds as well, which allows the front six/seven another second to try and close on the ball carrier.
7, Has Tracey Claeys helped or hurt his job status this season?
Burns: Minnesota is 8-3 this year and also won eight games in 2013 and 2014. The last time Minnesota won eight games three times in a four-year span was 1903-05 (14, 13 and 10 wins).
If you saw that stat alone, you'd think that it's a sure thing that Claeys receives an extension here soon, and while I think he will, some fans are "meh" about this 2016 season. Of Minnesota's eight wins, only one of those is against an opponent with a winning record (Colorado State) and they are 0-3 against Penn State, Iowa and Nebraska. All three games Minnesota held the lead in the second half, and in fourth quarter in two of them. It's still been a successful season, but it's one that's left fans wondering, "What if?"
New Athletic Director Mark Coyle has been very quiet throughout the entire season, so we'll see what happens here following the game this weekend.
8, Who is the x-factor on Saturday for Minnesota?
Burns: Leidner. Here are his two career games against Wisconsin.
2014: 5 of 18 (27 percent) for 95 passing yards with zero touchdowns or interceptions. He did run for two rushing scores on 54 yards rushing.
2015: 16 of 37 (43 percent) for 223 passing yards with one passing touchdown and three second-half interceptions.
He has not played well against the Badgers in his career, and he's going to need to really play the game of his life through the air and value the ball. He can't have turnovers in critical situations.
9, What areas of Wisconsin do you expect will give Minnesota trouble? Where do you think the Gophers have the edge over the Badgers?
Burns: I expect Wisconsin to be able to shut down Minnesota's rushing attack. If they're able to go up double digits early, that's going to spell trouble for the Gophers. This isn't an offense that's built to move through the air consistently. If you're forcing Leidner and this passing game to throw more than 25-28 times, it's going to be tough sledding.
I'm also expecting Minnesota's run defense to come to play. They've been pretty stout all season and rank just behind Wisconsin's defense, as the Gophers are only giving up 3.5 yards per carry and just 115 yards a game on the ground total. Last year Wisconsin was able to run it down the gut of Minnesota's defense, as the Gophers were missing their top three defensive tackles. They're all healthy for this year's game.
I also think Minnesota holds an edge on special teams. Minnesota's only missed two field goals on the season and its coverage game has been stellar.
10, What is the one thing Minnesota needs to do well in order to win Saturday?
Burns: Move the ball through the air efficiently. Notice I didn't say consistently, but they're going to have to find some success on second and third down to keep this talented Wisconsin defense guessing. The Gophers are going to have to find a passing game, and ideally a deep passing game.